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Cooperative Games

The past few years has seen a flood of cooperative games hit the market—games in which the players cooperate to beat the game, not each other. They’re a perfect choice if you want a game that avoids direct conflict between the players, or just if you want something a bit different than the usual player versus player game. Of course this sub-genre has variations of its own, so clever inventions like ‘traitor’ players have been introduced to spice things up a bit and bring back the conflict—so much so that this kind of game can actually end up being more competitive than a normal game!

Lord of the Rings by Reiner Knizia (2000) was probably the most influential of the early cooperative boardgames. While the concept had appeared before in games such as Scotland Yard and the first editions of Fury of Dracula and Arkham Horror, LoTR really took it to the next level by making the game itself the opponent. Check out my earlier article Gaming in Middle-Earth for more information on this classic game and its expansions.

Shadows Over Camelot by Days of Wonder really got the ball rolling for the cooperative genre. It’s a stunning-looking game, with beautiful art, nicely sculpted plastic miniatures and multiple boards. The new idea that really set this game apart was the introduction of the idea of a ‘traitor’. One of the players, secretly determined at the start of the game, actually plays against the others without their knowledge, and wins if the game wins. Negative events are always happening due the forced drawing and playing of ‘black cards’, and the players must cooperate to meet the various game challenges (by playing combinations of white cards)—all the while not knowing who among them is secretly trying to foil their plans!

FFG took this concept even further with Battlestar Galactica and its Pegasus expansion. One or more players could be ‘traitors’ (Cylons in this case), and things get even more insidious during a mid-game ‘Sleeper Phase’, when one of the ‘good guys’ may suddenly discover they are in fact working on the side of the Cylons and must change allegiance mid-stream! This is where the definition of ‘cooperative’ gets really interesting, because the accusations of skulduggery fly thick and fast, and you can send a suspected Cylon to the brig—or even, in the expansion, blow them out an airlock! For fans of the TV series buying this game is a no-brainer, but anyone who likes a clever game of cooperation and sneakiness should check it out.

One of the big hits of this particular genre—and the game with one of the most original themes of the last few years—is Z-Man Games’ Pandemic (2008) and its sequel Pandemic: On the Brink (2009). Each player has a special ability, and are working together in an attempt to halt the spread of a number of virulent diseases across the globe. There’s a lot to cover in a limited time as the pandemic spreads—travelling across the world, building research stations, finding cures, and of course getting the right cards to cure those plagues. The expansion brings further challenges to the game, along with some essential plastic petri dishes in which to store your components!

One of the issues with cooperative games is that if you play them enough, it can get easier to ‘beat the game’. Not so with Ghost Stories by Asmodee (2008). This notoriously difficult game is hard to beat out of the box, but there are various levels of difficulty for experienced players—right up to the aptly named ‘Hell’ level. This very attractive game is set in a village in a medieval fantasy Japan, and players desperately cooperate to destroy and dispel the ghosts and horrors that are the minions of the evil Wu-Feng. There’s more to enjoy in the expansion, White Moon, where players also have to rescue villagers from the ghosts. Don’t let them get killed, or you may suffer the family’s curse!

The award-winning Space Alert (2008) takes the cooperative genre and adds some unique twists—not the least being an audio CD with a series of 10 minute recordings of the spaceship’s computer announcing the threats that face the players. While this is playing, players have to coordinate their desperate efforts to meet these threats—interceptors, monsters, intruders, asteroids and malfunctions. The game is fast, chaotic and absolutely furious, and it’s a refreshing change to play a game that puts you under a tough time restriction.

The original Fury of Dracula by Games Workshop (1987) shared many of the mechanics of the earlier Scotland Yard (1982). In Fury, most of the players cooperate with each other to chase the other player—the Prince of Darkness himself—across Victorian Europe, battling his minions and dealing with his nefarious trickery along the way. The Dracula player makes his moves in secret—originally behind a screen, but in the FFG remake (2006), with the use of cards—and the game system really encourages this player to get in character. It’s one of my favourite games and an absolute classic—highly recommended.

Arkham Horror (1987) also got the FFG ‘reimagining’ treatment in 2005. This continually expanding game system—seven expansions and counting!—pits players as adventuring characters in 1920s Arkham (and some of the towns nearby), discovering and fighting the horrific creatures of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. If you fail to shut down enough extra-dimensional gates, there’s always the chance you might manage to beat the Great Old One in pitched combat at the end of the game (actually, there’s not much chance at all)! There’s more information about this game in my earlier article, Gaming With Cthulhu. Keep an eye out for the latest expansion, The Lurker on the Threshold, which will be hitting the Games Paradise pages late July, early August 2010.

While we’re on the subject of Cthulhu, check out Witch of Salem (Mayfair Games, 2008) for a more ‘Euro’ take on the cooperative genre. It’s not as detailed and random as Arkham, but it’s arguably even more tough.

The recently-released Forbidden Island (Cocktail Games) has been dubbed ‘Pandemic for kids’—but this just means that it’s a cooperative game that’s fun and easy to learn! This lovely game—which comes in a full colour tin by the way—has players working together trying to discover four treasures from a sinking island, made up of nicely illustrated tiles. There’s a bit of a Myst (remember that computer game?) aesthetic to this great little game. It can be a tough challenge getting all those treasures, getting to the helipad, and getting off the island before it floods around you!

Talking about flooding, if the idea of being gnomes trapped in a flooding submarine with fires breaking out around you appeals—and of course it does—you can’t go past FFG’s Red November. This is a lot of game packed in a small box. Not only do you have to deal with fires and floods, but the pressure is increasing as the subs sinks to the ocean floor, the nuclear reactor is going to blow, and here’s a giant Kraken out there somewhere in the murky depths … Luckily, there’s a few bottles of good Russian vodka about the ship, and gnomes are notoriously good at making hasty repairs.

A small and easy to carry card game, Saboteur has players as dwarven miners digging for treasure—only once again, there’s a traitor in their midst … the saboteur! Whether you’re a miner or saboteur is only revealed once the round is over—if the miners reach the gold through a path of cards, they get it, otherwise the saboteur gets it. The player with the most gold at the end wins. Of course, there are all kinds of sneaky ways for the saboteur to foil the dwarf plans.

Staying on the small game theme, check out last year’s The Isle of Doctor Necreaux (2009) by Alderac Entertainment Group. This great little card game has a pulp sci-fi theme; players raid the island trying to save captured scientists from a diabolical doctor. The faster you travel through the doctor’s island complex, the more cards you’ll face—traps, monsters, events and items. You’ll have to work together to defeat the Venusian Teknophage or the Formless Terror, and you might even make it with the scientists to the escape shuttle …

inally, for an excellent spin on the ‘traitor’ idea, check out Cutthroat Caverns (2007) by Smirk & Dagger Games. This very clever card game starts out like a normal dungeondelving expedition—and then gets nasty! Your characters will have to cooperate to play cards dealing hits on whatever beastie you happen to be attacking—but only the player who lands the killing blow gets to walk away with the ‘prestige value’ of that particular encounter. This can lead to some hilarious last minute backstabbing, tripping up and sneakiness on the part of the players, and it makes for a hilarious game, especially with the right group. Several expansions keep the creatures with their individual special abilities rolling in, not to mention extra concepts like relics and treasure. There’s even a more role-playing-like expansion that explores adventure-based play. The concept is perfectly summed up by the game’s tagline: “Without teamwork, you will never survive. Without betrayal, you’ll never win.”

And in fact that pretty much sums up the whole idea of cooperative gaming. In most cases, players have to work together to beat the game—but there’s often a sneaky player or two who has his or her own secret agenda, and who plots the demise of the other players. Who do you trust? Let’s face it, even when you’re cooperating, we all need a bit of conflict—otherwise it wouldn’t be a game would it?

For more information about the games mentioned in this article, visit the publisher sites or BoardgameGeek (www.boardgamegeek.com). You can also find rules summaries and reference sheets for many of these games at Headless Hollow (www.headlesshollow.com/freebies_games.html).

by Universal Head

Universal Head (www.universalhead.com), has been designing graphics from the most corporate to the most creative for more than twenty years. He’s responsible for the graphic design of several boardgames, most notably ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ by Z-Man Games, and once spent a year recreating the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in 3D for the computer game ‘The Omega Stone’. In between he’s designed everything from large corporate identities and websites, to packaging, to interactive educational modules. His personal site www.headlesshollow.com is an obsessive repository of professionally designed rules summaries and reference sheets for popular boardgames.

1 Comment

  1. Pandemic is an excellent great teamwork game, you know there are several different levels of difficulty to stop it from getting too easy?

    I reckon “Ghost Stories” is too hard – I’ve never seen anyone win the game on the easiest setting, and one of the guys I played it with owned the game and said he’d played it hundreds of times and never won. That’s just offputting to never win.

    I’ve had Saboteur for years, but we mustn’t be playing properly – it’s always obvious who the saboteurs are – why else would you damage someone’s tools or cause a cave in? We don’t get it.

    Shadows Over Camelot sounds like it could be fun! I’ll have to check on BGG but I hope it’s one of those games that has the possibility of there actually being *no(* traitor, so the players might be looking for someone who isn’t there!

    Cutthroat Caverns sounds fun … will have to check it out 🙂

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